Jason Bryk 

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Should First Rights of Refusal be treated like Interests in Land

The recent Manitoba Court of Appeal decision (Kadyschuk and Sawchuk, hereinafter the "Kadyschuk Case") confirmed what has been established law for quite some time relating to first rights of refusal.  That is, that such arrangements are purely contractual in nature and do not constitute interests in land, and thus cannot - apart from further contractual assignments and undertakings - bind a successor in title to the original land owner who grants a first right of refusal. The theory underlying this is that, unlike an option to purchase which gives the optionee the right and power to compel the optionor to sell its land to the optionee (upon the optionee properly exercising the option), under a first right of refusal, the grantee thereof does not have such right and power within its control, but must await the occurrence of one or more acts and/or decisions taken by the grantor of the first right of refusal, which acts/decisions are entirely within the control or discretion of the grantor, and in particular, are not within the control or discretion of the grantee.

At first instance in the Kadyschuk Case, the motions judge, in referring to the first right of refusal which the parties had agreed to, stated that "…that right needs to be placed not only in this agreement but on the title or registered somewhere such that an innocent party without notice is not caught in this legal argument that there is a first right of refusal. …I am not going as far as saying that (the grantee of the first right of refusal) has an interest in the land…but he certainly has a right that has to be registered and that right, in this court's opinion, can be registered on title in the Winnipeg Land Titles Office…".

As the Court of Appeal pointed out, the problem with the motion's judge's position was that registration of the grantee's rights of first refusal can not be made against the grantor's title (by way of caveat or otherwise), because under the Real Property Act (Manitoba), a caveat can only be used to register an interest in land and a first right of refusal is not an interest in land. However the motions judge did raise an interesting question as to whether or not a third party contemplating taking an interest in the grantor's land (after the grantor has provided a first right of refusal to a grantee thereof), namely someone who the motions judge would refer to as an "innocent party", who searches the title and finds no record of the first right of refusal, would be prejudiced by its existence where such "innocent party" contracted to purchase the land and then got caught up in an argument as to whether or not the first right of refusal took priority over the "innocent party's" purchase rights. One could argue that if the first right of refusal is not a registrable interest in land and the third party purchaser has no knowledge of it and is thus not bound by it, by being not bound by it and being able to close its purchase free and clear of the first right of refusal, the "innocent" third party purchaser is not prejudiced. Also, it is probably reasonable to assume that in most cases, in accepting a third party purchaser's offer to purchase, an owner would make it clear that its acceptance was subject to the first right of refusal, and that the sale transaction could only be completed if the holder of the first right of refusal failed to exercise its rights. The writer has often heard from other counsel and people in the land development business that clients/developers would not be amendable to spending the time required to consider the possible purchase of a land owner's property and to engaging counsel to draft an offer to purchase, if they knew at the outset that their time, trouble and expense could be all for naught and would merely establish a benchmark price and sale terms for a sale by the owner to the holder of the first right of refusal. In this situation, and assuming that a first right of refusal was legally capable of being registered against the owner's title, the potential third party purchaser would not be prejudiced because, seeing the first right of refusal caveated against the owner's title, he would simply "walk away" and not make an offer to purchase.  However, the owner would be prejudiced because the existence of notice of the first right of refusal on the title would no doubt "scare off" most potential purchasers. But wouldn't that prejudice to the owner/grantor of the first right of refusal "come with the territory" when the owner agrees to a first right of refusal and is thereafter open to receiving and/or soliciting offers to purchase from third parties?

The other party possibly prejudiced by the fact that a first right of refusal is not currently capable of being registered on the owner/grantor's title is the grantee of the first right. As stated above, it is the writer's assumption that most grantors of first rights of refusal will honour same and make it clear to any third party purchaser that acceptance of purchaser's offer is subject to the first right of refusal.  But what about the first right of refusal grantor who fails (carelessly or fraudulently) to advise a subsequent third party purchaser - or for that matter, anyone else contemplating acquiring a subsequent interest in the land, such a mortgagee - of the existence of the first right of refusal? Under current law, the subsequent third party purchaser, mortgagee or other person acquiring an interest in the land would no doubt acquire free and clear of the first right of refusal. This would leave the grantee of the first right of refusal with a claim for damages against the owner.  Such a claim may not be adequate redress for the aggrieved first right of refusal holder.

PerhapsManitobalegislation should be amended so that holders of first rights of refusal are able to register, record or otherwise place notice of their rights against the owner's title so as to bind persons subsequently acquiring any interest in the owner's land.  Such amendment could specify that:

             (i)                in order to so register, record or otherwise place notice on title, the agreement creating the first right of refusal must clearly specify that it is the intention of the owner and grantee that the rights given to the grantee are intended to bind successors in title to and other persons acquiring interests in the owner's land; and

            (ii)                the agreement must itself be a legally valid agreement or grant (this may go without saying, but - and as noted by the Court in the Kadyschuk Case - it was open to argument that the first right of refusal agreement in question was void for uncertainty in several respects).

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